Table of Contents
THE CONTEXT: Recently, suspension of Members of Parliament over the violation of parliamentary privileges has generated a debate. The purpose of privileges is for efficient working of the house, but it is held that it is being used by government to punish the opposition. In this context, this article analyses the issue of privileges, their use and misuse and implications for the functioning of Parliament.
BACK TO BASICS: AN OVERVIEW OF PRIVILEGES
- Parliamentary privileges are special rights, immunities and exemptions enjoyed by the two Houses of Parliament, their committees and their members. They are necessary in order to secure the independence and effectiveness of their actions.
- So far, neither Parliament nor any State legislature has enacted legislation that defines the powers, privileges and immunities of the Houses, or that of its members and committees.
- These immunities are presently governed by precedents by British parliamentary conventions.
- These privileges are mentioned in Article 105 for Parliament, and in Article 194 for the state legislatures.
- The Indian Parliament can decide if its reports, debates, and proceedings should be published or not.
- The Parliament has the right to exclude outsiders from its proceedings.
- It can conduct secret sessions if needed.
- Parliament can make rules for regulating its procedures, business conduct, and work adjudication.
- It can suspend or expel members for violating privileges.
- Parliament can reprimand, admonish, or even imprison individuals who breach privileges.
- The Parliament is informed about the arrest, detention, conviction, imprisonment, and release of its members.
- The Parliament can initiate inquiries and call witnesses.
- The proceedings of the Parliament and its committees cannot be questioned in court.
- No arrests or legal processes can occur within the House precincts without the presiding officer’s permission.
- Members of Parliament cannot be arrested (civil offences only) during sessions, 40 days before and after sessions.
- They have freedom of speech in Houses and are immune from court proceedings for their speech in Parliament.
- They are exempt from jury service and can refuse to give evidence or appear as witnesses during sessions.
- If members of Parliament feel that the parliamentary privileges have been breached, they can raise a privilege motion. Any member of Parliament can raise this with the consent of the chairperson of the house.
- When a privilege motion is raised, the chairperson can refer it to the “Privileges Committee.”
BREACH OF PRIVILEGES
- Breach of privilege is the violation of respective rights or immunities of the members of either House of Parliament or the State Assembly.
- When any member of the House or any outsider tries to devalue the power, privilege and immunity granted to members of the Houses as well as constituted committees, it is said that they are committing an offence of breach of privilege.
- Breach of privileges is a punishable offence. The form of punishment is decided as per the severity of the breach in accordance with the general law of Parliament.
PUNISHMENT FOR BREACH OF PRIVILEGES
- The authority to decide the punishment lies with the House. A person found guilty of breach of privileges or contempt can be reprimanded, warned or sent to prison.
- The period for which the House can commit an offender to custody or prison for contempt is limited to the duration of the session of the House.
- In case its member is found guilty, the MP can be suspended from the House or face expulsion.
THE DEBATE OVER BREACHING PARLIAMENTARY PRIVILEGES?
- In a Rajya Sabha bulletin dated February 18, the secretariat informed that the Chairman had referred a question of an alleged breach of privilege against 12 MPs of Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). In addition to this, the bulletin mentioned a separate privilege notice against AAP’s Sanjay Singh for “non-adherence to the directions of the Chair”.
- Chairman of Rajya Sabha had rebuked the AAP leader for repeatedly submitting similar notices seeking suspension of business to discuss the Adani issue when the House was in session.
- The action witnessed frequent confrontations between Chairman of Rajya Sabha and the Opposition benches over the rejection of notices and discussion on the Adani issue, has sparked off a debate on discussion versus discipline in Parliament.
- Opposition has called the Chairman’s decision against the “democratic heritage” of Parliament. They questioned how parliamentary privilege is being violated when a Member of Parliament is exercising their right and puts forward a notice as per the rule book which regulates their conduct in the House.
- The Chairman also separately referred the matter of “repeated submission of identical notices” by AAP leader Sanjay Singh to the Committee of Privileges in the Upper House.
- Recently, in the monsoon session of the Parliament, AAP MP Raghav Chadha and Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury were suspended for breach of privileges.
- The Lok Sabha suspended Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the Congress Leader of the House, for allegedly engaging in unruly conduct and causing repeated disturbances. The Lok Sabha’s privileges committee has been asked to look into Chowdhury’s conduct. He will remain suspended till it takes a decision.
- Another MP, Raghav Chadha was suspended from the Rajya Sabha for an alleged breach of privileges after four MPs complained that he named them in a House panel without their consent in violation of rules.
- The ruling government moved the resolution to suspend Chadha till the privileges committee submits its findings on the cases of breach of privileges.
THE COMMITTEE OF PRIVILEGES
What is the Privileges Committee?
- The Privileges Committee consists of 15 members in the case of Lok Sabha nominated by the Speaker and 10 members in the case of Rajya Sabha nominated by the Chairman.
- In the Lok Sabha, the Speaker nominates the head of the committee of privileges.
- In the Rajya Sabha, the deputy chairperson heads the committee of privileges.
- The objective of the committee is to safeguard the freedom, authority and dignity of Parliament.
- Its function is to examine every question involving a breach of privilege of the House or the members of any Committee.
- It determines concerning the facts and makes suitable recommendations in its report.
How does the Committee of Privileges work?
- If the matter is referred to the panel, it examines the question of privilege and decides if a breach of privilege is involved and the nature of the breach and circumstances leading to it.
- A report with recommendations is then presented to the House for its consideration.
- The Speaker may also allow a half-hour debate on the report by the committee before passing orders or directing that the report be tabled before the House.
- After a motion for consideration of the report, the Committee moves that the House agree or disagree with the amendments and recommendations in the report. Further action is taken per the decision of the House if the resolution is unanimously passed.
What kinds of cases come to the committee?
- Usually, the committees examine cases where MPs complain that an outsider has breached their privilege.
- For example, the Lok Sabha committee recently looked at multiple instances in which MPs have alleged that government officials have either violated protocol or been unresponsive. But this year, MPs have also brought questions about breach of privilege by other MPs.
What does the committee decide in breach of privilege cases against MPs?
- The Committee of Privileges has the power to recommend to the House for its consideration the issuance of admonitions, reprimands, suspension and, in rare cases, expulsion from the House.
- The convention followed by the committee of both Houses is that if the MP against whom a privilege matter is raised gives an unqualified apology, then the issue is allowed to rest, and it recommends no further action.
WHETHER THE SUSPENSION IS A MISUSE OF PRIVILEGES?
- A close examination of the rules of parliamentary privileges reveals that they are meant to clear obstruction in the House so that business can be conducted without obstruction with an element of punishment in it.
- Also, if the member breaches the privileges, member is temporarily disqualified in as much as he is not allowed to attend the meetings of the House or any meeting of the committees of which he may be a member, during his suspension.
- Similarly, he won’t be allowed to give any notice of questions, motions or resolutions. In effect, he is compelled to remain a non-member during this period.
- However, this fundamental idea about the disciplinary powers of the Houses seems to be changing of late. For example, in one case in the Rajya Sabha, the suspension of a member has been extended beyond the end of the recent session. In another case, a member has been suspended pending investigation by the privileges committee of the House.
- This kind of suspension is held to be unheard of in the history of parliament and clearly is misuse of power. Suspension pending investigation is done only in the case of government employees because the rules permit it. But in the case of members of parliament, there is no such rule.
- Therefore, these kinds of suspensions taken in partisan manner as a retaliation shows misuse of power and is also a violation against the Supreme Court Judgement.
NOTE: MORE ON THIS IN THE CLASS.
THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE SUSPENSION
Both Houses of Parliament possess the power to discipline unruly members so that they can function undisturbed. This power is given to ensure the smooth functioning of the Houses and to punish those who create disorder. However, misusing privileges to suspend the members can have a negative impact on parliamentary functioning.
- Weaponising of parliamentary privileges: Weaponising of parliamentary privilege for suspension of members is seen as an assault on democracy as it throttles every voice of dissent which is a necessary element of democratic government.
- Undermining freedom of expression: These actions threaten and intimidate opposition members as it creates a chilling effect on other members that leads to inhibition or discouragement of the legitimate exercise of freedom of speech and expression.
- Effect on functioning of parliament: If this process of suspension continues with arbitrary extension of duration of suspension by government it will impact functioning of parliament. Lesser debates will eventually deteriorate the quality of the Bills.
- Impact on representative democracy: Suspension of members of parliament who are the representative of the people undermines representative democracy and it directly affects the voice of electors.
- Lessen Accountability: Only targeting opposition for political motives undermines the role of opposition which leads to lack of legislative scrutiny and lessens the accountability of the ruling government.
- Hinder development: Splitting of agendas of ruling government and opposition members will eventually harm the overall development of the country as proper implementation of programme and policies would be disturbed.
THE WAY FORWARD
- Revisit the decision: As the suspension of members seems to be motivated by external reasons rather than for parliamentary democracy, the decision of suspension may need to be revisited.
- Codification of parliamentary privileges: Indian parliamentary privileges are not codified, and the constitution makers left it to the parliament to decide it on case-to-case basis. It’s high time for parliament to codify the privileges so that scope for violation and misuse of privileges minimize.
- Minimise the duration of suspension: Extension of duration of suspension lead to willful and persistent obstruction of the business. Therefore, suspension cannot be for an indefinite period, and it should be minimized.
- Ensuring Democratic values: Every instance of suspension of an MP triggers strong statements on both sides. Although privileges are not absolute rules, it should ensure democratic values and freedom of speech. Parliamentarians should be given sufficient scope to express their thoughts.
- Representative democracy: Parliament is the most important deliberative forum representing diverse interests of the country. Therefore, there is need for an alternative viewpoint to deal with suspension in spirit of representative democracy by indulging in civilized discourse rather than disruption of house.
- Constructive role of opposition: The opposition should play a constructive role in Parliament and be allowed to put forward its views and express itself in a dignified manner. Parliamentary privileges should enable members to become tools for freedom of expression and to work to enhance quality of debate and functioning of parliament. The majority party is responsible for governing and should take other parties into confidence.
- Learn from parliamentary working of UK: As the rule of parliamentary privileges has been borrowed from the British parliamentary conventions, lesson can be taken from their functioning of parliament. The House in UK decides on breaches of privilege and contempt on a case-by-case basis, on the advice of the Committee of Privileges, a cross-party select committee of MPs that considers matters relating to privilege referred to it by the House. It can ensure proper functioning of parliament in Indian parliament system as well.
THE CONCLUSION: Though the decision of suspension is only a blueprint it should be taken as a lesson. It is difficult to deal with planned parliamentary offenses and deliberate disturbances for publicity or political reasons. There is a need to strike a balance between deliberate disruption and raising the important issue, and that the solution to unruly behaviour has to be long-term and consistent with democratic values.
Q.1 What do you understand by Parliamentary Privileges? Discuss their importance for effectiveness of parliamentary functioning in the light of recent developments.
Q.2 Recent instances of suspension of members of parliament in the name of breach of privileges is a breach of democracy. Critically examine.Spread the Word